WASHINGTON—Energy from the Sun can cause beautiful sites like the Northern Lights or potentially dangerous forces like solar flares, but scientists struggle to forecast whether these releases will be gorgeous or gruesome. NASA announced on Wednesday a new mission to study this phenomenon more closely.
“Centuries ago, as we became a sea-faring species it became increasingly important that we figured out how to understand and predict the weather,” said Craig Tooley, the mission’s project manager. “As we are going to move out into our own solar system we need to understand what drives all of that, [so space] weather is equally important.”
Space weather is driven by an explosive process, called magnetic reconnection, according to Jim Burch, principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, a nonprofit research firm working with NASA on the mission.
This is a physical process that is similar to trying to push a positive and negative magnet together. However, when it occurs around the sun and other powerful solar bodies, it is possible, and releases a large amount of energy. This energy is more commonly seen as solar flares.
The mission, officially called Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, will launch four spacecrafts that separate in space and function as flying laboratories. The spacecrafts should be able to produce an extremely detailed, three-dimensional image of this energy release. The mission is slated for launch on March 12.
NASA designed “four spacecrafts, 100 instruments, each one 100 times better than the ones we have done before,” said Jeff Newmark, a NASA scientist.
A lack of knowledge on solar flares is potentially dangerous. Strong solar flares can possibly interfere with satellite, radio and other forms of communication. Extreme flares can also cause power blackouts throughout the planet, according to John Belcher a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“If you have a huge storm go by, you can do things like fry power lines because of the effects of the amount of energy being dumped into the magnetic field,” said Belcher.
NASA’s spacecrafts will wait in a strict formation for the magnetic reconnection to sweep over them. A difficult task because it is small, relative to space, and moving at hundreds of miles per second, according to Bill Patterson, an astrophysicist at NASA.
“A cosmic version of a needle in a haystack,” said Paul Cassak, an associate professor at West Virginia University.
If NASA can understand magnetic reconnection and the speed of these energy releases around the sun, it can also help researchers understand what is happening around other celestial bodies, like black holes and neutron stars. These other space phenomenon also release energy through this process, but are too far and large for NASA to reach.
“The easiest place to study [magnetic reconnection] in a space-like environment is right outside the Earth,” Belcher said. “There is a lot of astrophysics that has to do with very energetic processes that you can understand better if you understand magnetic reconnection.”